Jesus, Peter & the Church, Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time (A), August 21, 2005

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Saint Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 21, 2005
Is 22:15, 19-23; Rom 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

1) “O how deep are the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God!” So wrote St. Paul to the Romans 2000 years ago, and so he says to the Roman Catholics here today. We see the depth of that treasure, wisdom and knowledge in today’s Gospel with regard to the Church Jesus had come down from heaven to build. First, we see it in how Jesus says he will build it. Next we witness it in the promise that the devil will never ultimately triumph over it; and third, we see it in the authority he gives the Church. Insofar as we — in the depth of the riches, wisdom and knowledge of God — have been called by Him to belong to the one and only Church the God-man ever founded on that foundation, with that promise, and with that authority, it is important that we understand and appreciate each of these aspects, so that we can with confidence live and spread those riches, wisdom and knowledge in our own time.

2) After Simon confesses that Jesus is not just a holy man or a prophet — like John the Baptist, Jeremiah or one of the prophets — and not even merely the Messiah, the Christ, but the “Son of the Living God,” Jesus discerned immediately his Father’s hand, because only his Father could have helped Simon recognize that the teacher who seemed to be a man just like all the others was in fact not just a man but God’s own divine Son. That was the revelation Jesus needed to see to make another revelation. He turned to the fisherman from Bethsaida and said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood (in other words, human reasoning) did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Then Jesus told him how important Simon would become in the communion that Jesus had come to found. “And I for my part declare to you that you are Rock — the Aramaic word Kepha is both the proper name “Peter” as well as the thing, “Rock” — and on this rock (on you) I will build my Church.” The Church would always be Jesus’ own, and by Jesus’ decision, in accordance with the depth of his riches, wisdom and knowledge, he chose to build it on Peter.

3) Then Jesus said that his Church would last forever: “And the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” This is an incredible promise. The same devil who tried to tempt and defeat Jesus is going to try to tempt and defeat his Church, but Jesus assures us that the devil will never win. His Church will triumph and fulfill its purpose of continuing to carry out Jesus’ mission of the salvation of the world. This is both greatly consoling as well as a challenge. The consolation is that there will always be the Catholic Church, and this should deeply influence our sense of belonging to the Church universal, not just in countries spread throughout the globe, but centuries spread throughout time. The challenge is that no particular parish or Church or diocese is guaranteed to be around. We know from Church history that whole dioceses in northern Africa —one of the most vibrant areas in the early Church — eventually disappeared because people there stopped practicing the faith. We’re all familiar with the closing of parish churches, which occurs either because people there have stopped practicing the faith or because they’ve stopped living the faith with a vitality that produces enough priests to serve these Churches. And then sometimes the sad phenomenon occurs that when a particular parish church closes, some of its parishioners allow the gates of hell, which cannot triumph over the Church as a whole, to triumph over them personally. They stop practicing the faith. They fail to see their association with the Church universal, and they commit spiritual suicide by starving themselves to death spiritually through not receiving the sacraments. Our response to Jesus’ promise needs to be two-fold. First, we need to place our trust in Jesus’ promise that the Church as a whole will always survive and increase our sense of belonging to the larger Church, and rejoice in the larger Church just like young Catholics from throughout the entire globe did this morning with Pope Benedict in Germany. Secondly, we need to work hard to make sure that the Churches to which we belong — for us, St. Anthony’s — grows and thrives by giving of ourselves ever more to the mission of building up Christ’s Church.

4) The third thing we see about the Church in today’s Gospel is the authority Jesus gave to the structure he had established. He said to Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you declare bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you declared loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.” To understand this language of the keys, we need to go back to Old Testament times and specifically to today’s first reading. There we meet Eliakim, whom the king of Israel made his “master of the house,” which is a position that involves all of what a “vicar general” or “chief of staff” would have today and more. He was given the “key of the house of David” and “he shall open and no one shall shut, and he shall shut and no one shall open.” He had the keys to open up the royal palace and the royal treasury. He was also given the royal signet ring to be able to act in the power of the King of Israel. Jesus, the true King of Israel and King of Kings, was making Peter the “master of his house.” He was giving him his total authority to act in his name, to open and close in heaven and on earth. Why did Jesus do this? On the one hand, we have to admit it’s part of his “inscrutable ways” and “unsearchable judgments.” But on the other, we know that if Jesus’ plans were to ascend to heaven and entrust his mission of salvation to us his followers here on earth, then there needed to be a clear source of unity and authority. Jesus gave that authority, those “keys” to Peter. And what was needed among the first disciples of Jesus soon after his ascension is even more needed now two thousand years later. What a great gift the Petrine ministry of unity and authority is! We have seen what happens in its absence. When the first Protestants split from the Church in the 1500s, they claimed that there was no need for this papal ministry, because every individual believer could, with the help of the Holy Spirit, discern God’s truth directly from the Bible. But we’ve seen what’s happened since. Protestants disagree about the most important stuff. Some Protestants say you need to be baptized to be saved; others say you don’t — and if salvation depends on it, it’s important that we know. Some say one can get divorced-and-remarried as many times as he wants; others say Jesus was really clear in the Gospel that divorce-and-remarriage is adultery and that adultery is a mortal sin that kills God’s life inside of a person. Some teach that abortion is the killing of an innocent human person made in God’s image and likeness; others say it’s simply the sloughing off of cells. These — and many others — are crucially important questions about which there is so much confusion among Protestants, because even though the Bible is authoritative, the interpretations of the Bible have varied so much. We are so lucky that Jesus founded the Church with an authority such that Catholics can be sure of what we need to believe (faith) and do (morals) to please God and enter into the fullness of life with him.

5) But this gift is also a task. If Jesus founded his Church with this structure on Peter and his successors, and if they have his keys, and teach on faith and morals in his authority, then if we love Christ and want to do his will, we need to listen very attentively and follow the indications of the Pope. The Church is not a society of independent thinkers each with equally valuable opinions, but it is a communion with Christ in the Church he himself built on Peter and his successors. So when the Pope speaks out about issues of faith and morals, if we wish to be faithful to Christ, we follow, even if at times his judgments seem unsearchable and his ways inscrutable. When he says that gay marriage is not marriage at all and endangers the salvation of those who enter such unions, we take those words with the same authority with which we would listen to Christ if he himself said it to us. Today, in Germany, Pope Benedict preached a beautiful homily to young people. All those who confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and who take seriously his action of building his Church on the Rock and his successors, will hunt down those words, read them, and put them into practice, as if they were coming from Christ himself.

6) At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus commanded the twelve not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. To us, today, Christ does exactly the opposite. After his resurrection, he wants us to tell EVERYONE that he is the Son of the Living God and that he founded his Church on Peter, the rock, to whom he gave his own keys. May the Lord Jesus help us to become “living stones” in the Church he has built upon Peter, so that with Peter and with many of our contemporaries, we might come to experience the full joy of the Church triumphant. Praised be Jesus Christ!